- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Matt Hegarty was about to put his pads on before a Nov. 8 practice when he forgot what he was going to say to fellow lineman Conor Hanratty. Perplexed, he wondered if he had gotten enough sleep the night before.
"It was just a really confusing day, honestly," Hegarty said. "You wake up, go to class, you write notes in your book just like you normally do, and then it kind of does a 180 on you."
The writing and speaking were temporarily halted, and breathing was uneasy. He approached Notre Dame head athletic trainer Rob Hunt. Stroke symptoms were detected, and Hegarty soon found himself in the hospital. Less than 24 hours later, doctors determined that Hegarty had two previously undetected holes in his heart -- adding up to roughly an inch in missing tissue -- which caused a ministroke that shelved any thoughts of contributing to a national title chase and set in motion a spring comeback and a chase at a starting job.
Six whirlwind months later, Hegarty's last hurdle to climb is the depth chart, where he chased Nick Martin this spring for a shot at the Irish's starting center job.
"It's a big event in your life," Hegarty said of the ministroke. "And as much as you try to not think about it, you want to push on and think about, 'What's the next step?' I've got to take care of this final. I've got to write this paper. I've got to go to this doctor and visit.
"It kind of creeps in a little bit on you. I think the best part is getting back to business and going out there doing practice, doing everything that I normally do and seeing that everything's back to normal. I don't have anything to worry about."
Hegarty met with an occupational speech therapist after the episode. On Dec. 14, Dr. Ronald Nelson went up his thigh with a catheter to patch the holes in Hegarty's heart. Not long after, Hunt, the trainer, had Hegarty using an elliptical machine until he could resume weight-lifting, which he was eventually cleared to do in February, a hurdle he considered among the most significant.
"You kind of find yourself in the weight room, and I was able to find myself," Hegarty said. "Get back in there, you're throwing weight around, you're like, 'All right, it's back to business.' I felt great, it's what I do. Back to normal."
The new normal for Hegarty contains a greater sense of appreciation, but doctors told him that the heart repair has also given him up to 20 percent more oxygen in his bloodstream.
"Matt likes to say, 'I am 20 percent better than before, but it was a heck of a way to get better,' " his father, Bryan, said.
Hegarty is off the Plavax and Coumadin he was initially prescribed, now just taking a baby aspirin until June and possibly in the future before he travels long distances.
With the initial scares and most difficult obstacles now shoved to the side, Bryan Hegarty has looked at the timing of the ordeal that his son faced as a blessing.
Yes, Hegarty had to be shut down for the stretch run of a season that ended in the Discover BCS National Championship, but the recovery process allowed for a return to spring ball and a seemingly clean slate, with a first-team spot open in the middle of the line for the Aztec, N.M., native.
"Very foreign," Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said of dealing with Hegarty's injury. "And I think that the scary thing is just the unknown. You understand elbow, you understand a knee, you understand an ankle, you understand shoulders -- you don't have much experience with a guy's heart and issues there.
"But when you're around him, you see his attitude about it and the smile on his face and the determination on his face. You kind of shake it off: 'Hey, let's go to work.' That's what you want, to be the best we can. The way he's handled it and his approach to things is just outstanding."
For Christmas, Bryan Hegarty gave Matt a copy of former NFL player and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi's book, "Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery and My Return to the NFL," a memoir that helped fast-track Hegarty mentally.
His father said that it had initially taken the 6-foot-4.5, 291-pound third-year junior about a month to get over the fact that something like this could happen to him.
"When you're young, you're invincible. What's hard about this thing is it wasn't like an MCL tear, because you don't feel it," Bryan Hegarty said, referring to a prep injury Matt had suffered. "My wife used to be a therapist, so she has a good way of talking to Matt."
Back on the Loftus Sports Center practice field this spring, Hegarty's biggest concerns were dealing with Louis Nix and the rest of Notre Dame's relentless defensive line, a different but welcome dose of anxiety that is as sure a sign as any that the converted tackle's toughest battles are behind him.
"It takes two," head coach Brian Kelly said. "His family was involved. Really from a consensus standpoint, everybody was on the same page with this kind of serious condition. He had the best doctors. He had great follow‑up. He took care of himself. I just think it was everybody pulling in the right direction to get him back on the field, where he feels very, very confident that he can go every single day and not have to worry about his health."